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Crisis Manager, Crisis Leader: Who is Who and Who Does What?

Updated: Sep 28, 2022

In our last blog, we wrote about the importance of the Crisis Logger on a crisis management team. This month we are focusing on two other core roles on the Crisis Team: the Crisis Manager and the Crisis Leader.

In today’s increasingly volatile and crisis-prone environment, typical crisis preparedness plans include the formalisation of a Crisis Management Team. Two critical functions on the team are the Crisis Manager and the Crisis Leader, yet both roles are often confused and/or combined and it’s maybe time to provide a little clarity.

The Crisis Manager or otherwise called Crisis and Security Manager, Crisis and Business Continuity Manager, Risk Manager, Business Continuity Manager depending on the scope and size of the organisation, should really be named: Crisis Custodian – Custodian: one that guards and protects or maintains; especially: one entrusted with guarding and keeping property or records, Meriam-Webster.

The Crisis Custodian is the focal point for all crisis management matters in the organisation. Not to be confused with the Crisis Leader who actually heads the crisis management team and is the ultimate decision-maker in a crisis.

Whilst both roles are closely related and cannot deliver effective results without each other, their scope of responsibilities are different: the Crisis Custodian is typically a fully dedicated position, whereas the Crisis Leader, normally a member of the management team, takes up his/her crisis leader duties only and when a crisis has been declared. So the first is a facilitator, whilst the latter a decider.

The Crisis Custodian does not manage the crisis, but manages the effective implementation of the crisis process in his /her organisation,

which includes a range of specific responsibilities such as designing the crisis response architecture, ensuring procedures are up-to-date and that crisis training and exercises are conducted regularly. One of the more important tasks is to ensure that crisis team members, starting with the Crisis Leader, are trained in crisis leadership and equipped to perform optimally under the stress and duress of crises.

It is the Crisis Custodian who can ensure the organisation is crisis ready before a crisis hits on the condition that he/she is empowered to do so by senior management.

Yet in many organisations, this role is given insufficient rank and clout and ends up delivering limited results and efficiencies. Without a Crisis Custodian assigned and in charge, the organisation might be prepared in theory but not in practice and will therefore have difficulty in maintaining effective crisis resilience. For the Crisis Custodian to implement his/her remit effectively the mandate must come from the top.

A crisis is not “a bad week at the office” and it cannot be managed by consensus. Therefore, the Crisis Leader must demonstrate a specific set of skills to lead his/her team through the hardships and unexpected twists of the situation, which can sometimes last weeks or months. Crises must be managed by well-practiced and experienced teams. But, to be effective, crisis teams need crisis leaders. Without, it’s like an orchestra without a conductor or a sailboat without a skipper at the helm.

Leaders cannot become crisis leaders by default because leadership in normal times is different from leadership in crisis. In a crisis, there is less time to make decisions under pressure and the stakes are extremely high with multiples potential levels of impact such as, people’s lives, environmental damage, public and media scrutiny, business continuity and share price to name a few.

To be crisis-ready, Crisis Leaders need more than years of business and functional expertise, they need a complete new set of crisis-specific leadership skills that include situational awareness, sense making, scenario planning, stakeholder mapping and decision-making among others. Such crisis leadership competencies can be acquired through bespoke training workshops and exercises.

Having an empowered Crisis Custodian in place is the first and vital step in maintaining a well-oiled crisis response engine. But at the end of the day, it’s the Crisis Leader who will have to make all the tough decisions during a crisis. The Crisis Custodian needs the Crisis Leader to make things happen in peacetime and the Crisis Leader needs the Crisis Custodian to ensure all is in place and ready to go when something goes wrong. Both roles are critical and when an organisation plans them effectively, it can make all the difference in the successful management of a crisis.


Caroline Sapriel CS&A International Crisis Management

Caroline Sapriel is Founder and Managing Partner of CS&A International, a leading expert firm in risk, crisis and business continuity globally. With over 25 years experience, Caroline has provided counsel in crisis management to multi-national clients across industry sectors internationally.

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